The AL North looked like it would be a runaway from the start, but ended up having some intrigue. The St. Louis River City Rage looked to be the odds-on favorite, but the Cincinnati Simpletons and Buffalo Blue Cheese had good starts before fading late. Can either team challenge St. Louis? What about Milwaukee?
BUFFALO BLUE CHEESE
Last season: 76-86 (3rd in AL North)
Offense: 6th in AL
Pitching: 10th in AL
Summary: This is a solid lineup with depth. LF A.J. Leonard is arguably the best player in the game, and he's not alone in the lineup- 1B Julio Diaz is still a threat to go deep every single at-bat, and 2B Alex Saenz, IF Tito Martin, and C Dean Buerhle are all solid bats.
The pitching staff still has a way to go to be good. Miguel Hernandez and Chris Lowry both lost 14 games last season. In the bullpen, rookie George Danks may not be ready to take the closer's role, and Archie LeCroy and Al Root are shaky. On the plus side, D'Angelo Martin and George Hurst (I've been critical of him in this spot before) both had very nice seasons last year.
Outlook: They have some nice pieces (especially on offense), but I don't think the puzzle is complete enough to contend.
Last season: 79-83 (2nd in AL North)
Offense: 9th in AL
Pitching: 11th in AL
Summary: Rather than go out and add through free-agency, Cincinnati has chosen to develop its young offensive players through its own system. RF P.T. Lee is one of the most dynamic players in the league; he came through the Cincinnati system along with 2B Bob Hauser, IF Louis Wunsch, and CF Alex Jose. These four will form the crux of the offense, but they may miss veteran C Willis Petrov, who signed with Philadelphia.
Their pitching staff may very well be better than last season. They may not have a true ace, but they're pretty solid 1 through 5 with Louie Bolivar, Lucas Worthington, veteran Stephen Michaels, Lonny Hernandez, and rookie Andres DeLeon. The questions come with the middle of the rotation: can Michaels (at age 37) hold up and how many quality innings can Worthington and Hernanez provide? DeLeon has the look of a future #1 or #2 starter. They have a lot of money tied up in the bullpen, as Bert Price, Dave Stewart, or Achilles Hume could all conceivably close.
Outlook: This is a team on the brink. If their pitching holds up and they add some more offense, this could be a contending team. If not, expect maybe a few more wins but probably not enough to get in the playoffs.
MILWAUKEE MANIC MAULERS
Last season: 71-91 (4th in AL North)
Offense: 15th in AL
Pitching: 9th in AL
Summary: They knew they had to make changes in order to contend, and they most certainly tried. Last season's RBI leader, Morris Sierra, will start the season in AAA. Young infielders Lorenzo Santana and Max Javier become the focal point of the offense. They raided Trenton's left side of the infield from last season, grabbing both 3B/OF Brook Teut and SS Ignacio Diaz.
But the biggest move came on the other side of the ball. They signed the biggest free-agent pitcher, Oswaldo Astacio, to a massive contract to be the ace. That moves Barry Rader back to #2 (they're waiting patiently on Rader, as he was the major piece of the Martinez/Stevenson trade). The other three starters are Alex Calvo, Joe Gleason, and Japanese import Kenta Martin- on paper, this isn't a bad rotation at all. A major question should be how Alexander Richardson handles the closer's role. I'm not sure about the rest of the bullpen.
Outlook: It's hard to say. I'm not sure they can contend, but they definitely added some better pieces. The impact of the Astacio signing down the line remains to be seen.
ST. LOUIS RIVER CITY RAGE
Last season: 91-71 (1st in AL North, 3rd in AL)
Offense: 8th in AL
Pitching: 3rd in AL
Summary: The lineup is deeper than their ranking might imply. DH Rex Kent, RF Placido Sanchez, IF Rico Guevara, and IF Pepe Martin are all good solid run producers. They've also got the table setters in 1B Nick Hernandez and CF Gary Nelson, and SS Alex Silva could break into stardom at any time. This season they added another solid bat in 1B/DH Burt Stevenson.
The pitching staff should be fine, especially at the top. Yogi Anderson is a legitmate ace when he's on, and Billy Nation is a solid #2. Vernone Taubensee, Antonio Perez, and Tomas Ontiveros are solid at the back of the rotation. Can closer Carlos Carrasco recapture his past magic?
Outlook: They'd have to be viewed as the favorites to repeat as division champs, but I think it will be closer than most experts seem to think it will be.